For nearly a century, the Harlem Globetrotters have brought flair and antics to the game of basketball. The team has played to more than 148 million people, in over 26,000 exhibition games in 124 countries and territories.
The Harlem Globetrotters began in 1926 as the Savoy Big Five, an African American basketball team who mostly hailed from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago’s South Side. They first played under the banner of the South Side's Giles Post of the American Legion and then became known as the Savoy Big Five after Chicago’s Bronzeville's Savoy Ballroom hired the team to play as pre-dance entertainment. For Midwest audiences, the game of basketball was still novel and, from early on, this team brought an entertaining style of play to the sport.
Seizing on a golden opportunity, sports promoter Abe Saperstein purchased the team and became the manager and coach. Saperstein, a short-statured Jewish man from Chicago’s North Side, even pitched in as a player from time to time when a team member was ill or injured.
They played their first road game in Hinckley, Illinois on January 7, 1927. Eager to advertise the team’s unique all-black roster, Saperstein changed their name in 1930 to the Harlem Globetrotters to link the squad with the neighborhood known as the mecca of black culture. Despite the name, the Harlem Globetrotters didn’t actually play a game in Harlem until 1968.
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Before they became known for their on-court antics, the Globetrotters were highly competitive in professional basketball and introduced a flashy, schoolyard style of play. They popularized the slam dunk, the fast break, emphasized the forward and point guard positions, and the figure-eight weave.
In 1940, the team captured the World Professional Basketball Tournament title. Even as they introduced tricks and comedy into their play, the Globetrotters remained competitive. In 1948, the team defeated the Minneapolis Lakers, champions of the all-white National Basketball League, the precursor to the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Not only were the Globetrotters innovative in their basketball style, they were pioneers as a barrier-breaking, African American team when the professional ranks were racially segregated. Jim Horne, who played for Globetrotters for five years during the 1950s, recalls the racial oppression that the team endured. “I faced segregation in the Army. When we traveled, signs said, ‘Coloreds Eat in the Back,’” Horne says. “But when I played with the Globetrotters it was entirely different because we were entertaining people and still treated less than human. In the South, we couldn’t eat in most places and we had to stay in the worst hotels. Coming from Buffalo, New York, it was a rude awakening. It was rough during those days.”
Throughout their storied history, the team has counted among its ranks legendary players such as Reece “Goose” Tatum, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, Fred “Curley” Neal, “Wee" Willie Gardner, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins, and Lynette Woodard, the first woman to play on the team. In 1982, the team received the ultimate recognition for their role as entertainers: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.